Showing posts with label Christie's. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christie's. Show all posts

July 5, 2019

The value of a boy king in the form of the ancient Egyptian god Amen: All Sales Final

Engraving of Christie's auction Rome, "The Microcosm of London" (1808)
As the start of Christie's Exceptional Auction began on Thursday evening, the auctioneer present made an clipped announcement.  Those bidding on Lot 110, the 3000 year old Egyptian quartzite head of Tutankhamun portrayed as the god Amun, had to be registered bidders, a codicil she did not apply to other individuals bidding on remaining lots on offer last night.  Quickly, in less time than it takes a grim-faced Brit to drink a cup of tea, Christie's sold one off one of the most controversial items to pass through its doors.

The hammer price for the Egyptian head, a neat £4 million plus buyer’s premium, relevant fees. 

But this is not the only time that the firm has refused urgent appeals from source countries and concerned parties to remove items from auction.   

In one 2009 incident China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) protested the sale of a group of bronze animal heads, which once adorned a water clock fountain in the Chinese emperor's Summer Palace. These Chinese zodiac sculptures, on sale at Christie's in Paris, were part of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.  As the auction's presale advertising began to gather momentum, it was announced that the bronzes had been plundered during the Second Opium War which pitted the United Kingdom and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China in 1860. 

Hinting that the failure to withdraw the objects would have “serious effects” on Christie’s interests in the pronounced concerns, the source country applied pressure for the object's restitution. When that failed to achieve any desired results, a motion was formally filed through the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (APACE) backed by a group of signatories hoping to block the sale through legal action via through the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris. 

Unfortunately in that case, basing their decision on  French law, there were no legal measure available to the source country, so the legal case went nowhere as French law, based on Napoleonic law,  allows a purchaser to obtain valid title to stolen cultural property if said purchaser acted in good faith and exercised due diligence. Given the length of time between plunder and sale, it was determined that Pierre Bergé, as well as those who owned the artworks before him, had each acted in good faith when purchasing the Chinese booty.

Left with no other option but to buy back their own art back, Chinese art dealer Cai Mingchao purchased the statues during the auction pledging to pay some € 28,000,000 and then sabotaged the sale by refusing to pay.  Later he admitted that he had placed his bid solely “to disrupt the sale of the items.”

The fact that registered buyers now sign agreements obligating specific responsibilities when they bid appears to be the reason for Christie's announcement requiring that all bidders on Lot 110, the Egyptian disputed antiquity, be formally registered.  By doing so, it thwarted any possibility of patriotism getting in the way of payment.

In the end, Christie's made a tidy sum off of Egypt's sorrow.  By ignoring Egypt's request for information as to the object's legitimacy, it also proves that their sensitivity to a source nation's plunder and looting is far more shallow, than their client's incredibly deep pockets.

By:  Lynda Albertson



July 3, 2019

Questions for Christie's with regards to its upcoming sale of the Quartzite head of the young pharaoh portrayed as the ancient god Amun

Unpacking some miscellaneous thoughts on the upcoming Christie's sale.

@ChristiesInc does the name Heinz Herzer sound any alarms?  

What valid paperwork does the auction house in their possession which would substantiates that the quartzite head of the young pharaoh portrayed as the ancient god Amun, left Egypt legally?

Has anyone provided the auction house with shipping, storage, customs, or insurance records of any kind documenting when and how the quartzite head left Egypt, or when and how it arrived in Munich or elsewhere during its travels?


Looking over your Resandro Head Fact Sheet the first thing that draws my eyes was not the head's innate beauty but rather it once being in the possession of a specific Munich dealer, Heinz Herzer.  As a firm champion of Italy's right to the return of  the statue known as The Victorious Youth, also known as The Getty Bronze or Atleta di Fano I am all to familiar with the fact that the very illegal, proven illicitly exported statue was acquired by Heinz Herzer in 1971.  Herzer even created a publicly traded fund called Artemis S.A., specializing in art works just to sell the bronze to either Thomas Hoving, the former Director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.or John Paul Getty for his California Museum.  


But before the statue’s sale to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Herzer’s Munich firm removed the corrosion and incrustations covering the bronze statue, meaning Herzer had knowledge of the statue’s existence during the earliest periods of its clandestine movements. 

Image Credit:  Jiri Fril
Evidence presented by the Italian state at the Tribunal in Pesaro, Italy and later at the Appellate and Supreme Court demonstrate that Artemis was created ad hoc, with the specific purpose of managing the exportation and subsequent purchase of this valuable, but illicitly smuggled statue.  As most will remember, Italy's Appellate Court, followed by its Supreme Court, ultimately affirmed that this statue was clandestinely removed from Italian territory and has issued an order for restitution of their bronze. 


But back to the Quartzite head.  Christie's documentation state that Prince William of Thurn and Taxis owned the sculpture in the 1960s and sold it to Josef Messina, the owner of Galeria Kokorian & Co., Vienna, between 1973 and 1974.  


Best I can see Galerie Kokorian & Co KG, located at Spiegelgasse 19, 1010 Wien, Austria seems to be a discretely modest paintings gallery.  An unusual place to have an Egyptian statue of this significance to say the least. 


Let's also talk about the prince for a minute.  His full name was Wilhelm Alexander Lamoral Erich Maria Josef Ignatius Von Loyola Franciscus Von Assisi Benedictus Cyrillus Quirinus.  He lived from  1919-2004.  

As a general rule, as Live Science journalist Owen Jarus stated, the prince often went by the name "Willy".  Digging through records you can find some things listed in this diminutive name which includes some generalized information about his life including his debutante ball work but nothing at all on his collecting Egyptian antiquities.  Closest he ever appears to have gotten to Italy was a brif stay in Morocco after the second World War.

There is even a strange mention of some former actress who swears that she was secretly married to him.  Her name is Ilona Medveczky.   Yet I find absolutely no mention of an art collection containing Egyptian artifacts. 

Even his grave seems to me to be a modest one....so again, I would question if he was wealthy enough to have had an important, yet for all intents and purposes, unknown, ancient art collection.  

His neice, Daria Maria Gabriele Prinzessin von Thurn und Taxis was born on 6 March 1962. She is the daughter of Franz von Assisi Prinz von Thurn und Taxis (the prince's brother) and Mafalda Theresia Franziska Josepha Maria Prinzessin von Thurn und Taxis.  She told the Live Science journalist she didn't recall her uncle having such a piece in their collection. 

Interestingly though, I find nothing linking no official sons or daughters to the prince within official peerage documents.   I did find a "Viktor" is, who is referred to in the Live Science article as Willie's son.  He lives in Vienna and goes by the simplified name of Viktor Thurn Und Taxis and manages a Vienna film company called  VTT Film Service.   Who is mother was and why he is not listed on the noble roster is a mystery to be untangled though. 

Further digging I see that the three branches of the von Thurn und Taxis family: the German, Czech and the Austrian have little or no love lost for one another.  The German branch seems to be the very very wealthy one and extremely put out by the Czech branch of the tree going so far as to file at least one lawsuit against its relatives across the border. 


But let's not stray too far from the activities of Heinz Herzer and other dealers of interesting repute in the recent past that make me speculate about the legitimacy of this stone head.   Herzer's appears to have been associated with French dealer Christophe Kunicki, who was involved in the questionable acquisition of the looted Egyptian B.C.E mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.  

Herzer's name is also connected with Serop Simonian, an art dealer of Armenian origin, born in Egypt and a resident in Germany.  Simonian's involvement in the Nedgemankh case makes for some interesting court document reading, as does the notoriety he gained with the controversy over the disputed fake/authentic Artemidorus papyrus, which sold for €2.75 million to the Compagnia San Paolo Art Foundation in Italy in 2004. 


Herzer and Serop's names both come up alongside the French dealer Christophe Kunicki via Pierre Bergé & Associés in the provenance of a 13th Dynasty Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes, which Kunicki sold to the Metropolitan Museum in 2014. This object's provenance also connects with the same Egyptian middleman, and was purportedly purchased Feb 1969 by Uwe Schnell from Heinz Herzer Gallery in Munich.


Which brings us back to Hertzer’s name in Christies Auction of a quartzite head of the young pharaoh, which portrays him as the ancient god Amun.  Lot 110, is set to be auctioned in London tomorrow in Sale 17042 on 4 July 2019.


Yet despite statements made by noble family members that they have no recollection of the object, the potential purchaser (as well as Egyptian authorities apparently) are supposed to accept the auction house’s word that due diligence has been properly and sufficiently conducted without being privy to any of the documentation Christie's used to made their determination that this stone head is fit for sale. 


Where is the paperwork provided to the auction house which fully and clearly confirms that this antiquity left Egypt legally and was once truly part of a collection of Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis?
Image Credit of Egyptian Law
Courtesy of ICOM Red List for Egypt.
If this antiquity was removed legally from its country of origin, before the effective date of Egypt’s applicable patrimony law, the seller of the object should be able to provide something tangible to substantiate that export date.


In its statements to the Press, officials from Christie's have stated "It is hugely important to establish recent ownership and legal right to sell which we have clearly done. We would not offer for sale any object where there was concern over ownership or export."

In the interest of transparency, and good faith, and with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities making diplomatic demarches to INTERPOL, UNESCO, ICOM, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well as asking Christie’s directly to provide any concrete information on the object's validity for sale on the London market, shouldn't tomorrow's pending auction be postponed until such time as the Egyptian authorities have been given the opportunity to satisfactorily review any and all related documentation that Christie's had at its disposal when making its claim that this object is licit and not illicit?   

By:  Lynda Albertson

February 13, 2019

Looted artworks returned to Italy via voluntary forfeiture via Christie's auction house in London


In a memorable act of rare collaboration, Italian officials have announced “the first case of such close co-operation between Italy and a private auction house” in which a number of illegally obtained and trafficked antiquities, the proceeds of clandestine excavations between the 1960s and the 1980s, were voluntarily restituted to the Italian authorities. 

In a handover event held at Italy's Embassy in London, twelve antiquities and one document were ceremoniously returned, some of which had been placed up for auction in 2014 and 2015 and which were withdrawn from sale after being determined as questionable.  Attended by Alberto Bonisoli, the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities,  Raffaele Trombetta, the Italian ambassador to London, Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli of Italy's Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, the CEO of Christie's Guillaume Cerutti and the auction house's Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Stephen Brooks, this event represents a much needed step forward in art market's cooperation with the Italian authorities and a welcomes step towards collaboratively working with one another towards the restitution of looted objects.

The antiquities returned are: 


A marble fragment whose theft from a sarcophagus from the Catacombs of St Callixtus, on the Appian Way in Rome was reported in 1982. 


A 6th -5th century BCE Etruscan terracotta antefix used to capthe terminus of covering tiles on ancient roofs.

Its original provenance when listed in sale 10372 as Lot 102 was "Property from a London Collection
Provenance:   Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 9 December 1985, lot 273, when acquired by the present owner."


Five (5) 4th century BCE Apulian Gnathian-ware plates.


A 350-330 BCE red-figure Apulian hydria believed to be attributed to a follower of the Snub-Nose or Varrese painter.

Its original provenance when listed in sale 10372 as Lot 108 was "Property from a London Collection


A 2nd century CE Roman capitol.


A Roman marble relief depicting a Satyr with Maenad stolen from the gardens of Villa Borghese in 1985.


A 14th century promissory folio from an illuminated manuscript by the Doge Andrea Dandolo and the ducal councilors.


A 4th century BCE red-figure Faliscan stamnos vase used to store liquids.

At the ceremony, attendees underscored that the art market's ethical codes need enhancement and that greater due diligence is needed to ensure the legitimacy of objects before accepting them for sale.  With over 1 million two hundred thousand stolen objects and about 700 thousand images of stolen and looted art, the Carabinieri's Leonardo database, the largest stolen art database in the world, is a good place to start when auction houses such as Christie's consider accepting them on consignment.

During the event Christie's staff indicated that the antiquities had been acquired in the past in good faith.   Three of these however did not pass the smell test in 2014 and 2015 when they originally accepted for consignment and were placed up for auction.   All three were later withdrawn when they were identified as having passed through the hands of well known Italian dealers who have consistently been linked to trafficked antiquities.  Without the required, verifiable title, export documentation or collection history these objects had no place on the legitimate art market. 


Auction houses are not the only parties that need to be diligent when evaluating antiquities, especially when considering objects which appear to have emerged on the open market without substantiated collection histories.

Ancient art collectors should realise that their buying power and unharnessed demand for archaeological material, absent transparent ethical acquisition documentation, serves to incentivise those facing economic hardship to participate in, or tacitly condone, the looting of archaeological sites, by which illicit material enters the licit market.

If collectors in market buying nations such as the United States and UK refused to purchase undocumented artifacts, then the supply chain incentives for looting historic sites, which by proxy funds criminal enterprise, diminish.

By:  Lynda Albertson

October 30, 2018

Recoverable or Not? The sale of the Assyrian gypsum relief of a winged Genius, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, circa 883-859 BCE


In March 2015, the Iraqi government formally announced that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL had purposefully destroyed much of the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II as part of their iconoclastic program of obliterating preislamic cultural heritage monuments in their original archaeological contexts.  But despite the worldwide outrage at the time of this tragedy, most of the general public had already forgotten about the losses faced by the Iraqi people by the time the Virginia Theological Seminary publicly announced, on April 13, 2018, that it would be selling one of their own objects from Nimrud.  On that date, the trustees announced that for various reasons, they had decided to sell their own seven-foot carved gypsum alabaster panel from the now-destroyed palace, a relief known as "The Bearded Winged Apukalu." It's auction is set to occur at Christie’s Antiquities Sale in New York on the 31st of October.

Image Credit:  ARCA 
Until very recently, the press hardly noticed the upcoming sale.  This despite the fact that art historian Kiersten Neumann drew attention to the upcoming event via Twitter on May 22, 2018.   The auction of this rare piece of history was also of much talk by Assyriologists and museum professionals around the world.
From ARCA's calculations there are at least 76 known public collections and 6 private collections which contain material culture from the Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II.  

The last Assyrian relief to appear on the legitimate ancient art market sold to Noriyoshi Horiuchi after a bidding war between the Japanese antiquities dealer and an Italian phone bidder in 1994.  At that time, the relief sold for an eye-popping 7.7 million British pounds, a price 10 times what the auctioneers at Christie's had estimated. 

The Horiuchi-purchased bas-relief, like the one at the VTS, was excavated in the mid-19th century in what is now Iraq by British archeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard.  It was then given over to Sir John Guest, then owner of Canford Manor, who helped to pay for bringing the finds from Nimrud back to Britain.  That piece of the palace is now on display at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

The public however only seems to have taken notice in the VTS relief months after the Seminary made its announcement and only after the high dollar estimate the object is likely to bring started arousing interest in the major news outlets.

Like with the relief purchased by Horiuchi, the VTS relief was also excavated sometime around 1845 by Sir Austen Henry Layard.   Layard in turn is reported to have sold the object to Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, a medical missionary who worked in the 1850's in Mosul.  Haskell was interested in objects from the palace as proof of biblical history, for Nimrud is known as the ancient site of Calah and is mentioned in Genesis 10:11.  Haskell in turn, passed them on to his friend Joseph Packard, then professor and later Dean at Virginia Theological Seminary and the relief was shipped to the United States where it has been housed at the Virginia Theological Seminary since 1860.

Screen Capture: Facebook
Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage 
Despite being part of the VTS collection for more than 150 years, a recent call for help and appeal from the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage has been made by Dr. Qais Hussein Rashid, Deputy Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities and President of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage asking for law enforcement intervention asking for help in stopping the sale.  Unfortunately, the evidence is quite strong that the relief was legally excavated and exported in the nineteenth century, which makes preventing the sale highly unlikely.

The three Assyrian reliefs are purported to have reached America in 1859 where their transfer to the Virginia Theological Seminary appears to have been well established.  Packard, citing Rev. J. S. Lindsay, writes that the three slabs, were so valuable that the Smithsonian Institution, on failing to purchase them, had plaster casts made of them (Packard, citing Rev. J.S. Lindsay, 1902, 305).  The relief is also documented in other academic articles including the 1976 article by Ross, J.F. "The Assyrian reliefs at Virginia Seminary", part of the Virginia Seminary Journal 28(1) pages 4-10.

The strength of the Iraqi's claim for the restitution of its heritage in this instance would likely hinge on the applicability of New York penal law, i.e. that a thief can never acquire good title.  To do so, the courts would have to prove that the Virginia Theological Seminary, was is possession of stolen property.  If that were to be the case, the New York District Attorney's office could then seize the property as evidence and then move to release the stolen property under PL §450.10(2)'s mandate that "unless extended by a court order...property shall be released...after satisfactory proof of such person's entitlement of the possession thereof." But this might be difficult, if not impossible for the Iraqi authorities to substantiate.

Despite the somewhat contentious nature of Layard’s early explorations at Nimrud, which were at first clandestine, the intervention of the British government, to gain official support for the archaeologist's excavations from the Ottoman Turkish authorities is well documented.

On 5 May 1846, the Grand Vizier of the Turkish Empire sent a letter to the Pasha of Mosul, based upon the intercession of Stratford Canning, the Viscount Stratford, who partially funded Lanyard’s explorations.  A diplomat who represented Great Britain at the Ottoman court for almost 20 years, Canning spent most of his career as ambassador in Constantinople and was influential in exerting a strong influence on Turkish policy in support of the sultan’s resistance to Russia’s attempts to increase its influence over Ottoman affairs which eventually would lead to the outbreak of the Crimean War.  Through Canning's assistance,  the Brits were able to obtain permission for Layard's excavation.

The vizier's letter reads as follows: 

There are, as your Excellency knows, in the vicinity of Mosul quantities of stones and ancient remains. An English gentleman has come to these parts to look for such stones, and has found on the banks of the Tigris, in certain uninhabited places, ancient stones on which there are pictures and inscriptions. The British Ambassador has asked that no obstacles shall be put in the way of the above-mentioned gentleman taking the stones which may be useful to him, including those which he may discover by excavations … nor of his embarking them for transport to England.

The sincere friendship which firmly exists between the two governments makes it desirable that such demands be accepted. Therefore no obstacle should be put in the way of his taking the stones which … are present in desert places, and are not being utilised, or of his undertaking excavations in uninhabited places where this can be done without inconvenience to anyone; or of his taking such stones as he may wish amongst those which he has been able to discover.

--H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria, Sidgwick and Jackson , 1984, page 305.

In order to succeed in stopping the sale in New York, Iraq as a claimant would have to first prove that they have standing to bring such a cultural claim in a US court.  If the VTS has documentation proving that Layard passed their relief on to Dr. Henri Byron Haskell with the permission of the authorities in power at that time, as the provenance in the auction seems to indicate, the seminary would likely be in the clear to move forward with tomorrow's auction. 

Unfortunately this means that unless Iraq has the liquidity to buy back its own cultural patrimony, or is able to find a generous benefactor willing to purchase the ancient relief on their behalf, this reminder of the lost Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II will unfortunately go to the highest bidder.

Update: 31 October 2018
The Assyrian gypsum relief of a winged Genius, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, sold for a USD $27,250,000 hammer price which equates to $35,903,875 including the buyer’s premium to an in-the-room buyer at Christie's New York: Paddle 811.

By:  Lynda Albertson

May 2, 2018

Auction Alert - Sotheby’s New York - a bronze Greek figure of a horse

On May 01, 2018 ARCA was contacted by Christos Tsirogiannis about a possible ancient object of concern in an upcoming Sotheby's auction titled 'The Shape of the Beauty: Sculpture from the Collection of Howard and Saretta Barnet' scheduled for 10:00 AM EST on May 14, 2018 in New York City. The antiquities researcher had also notified law enforcement authorities in New York and at INTERPOL. 

Since 2007 Tsirogiannis, a Cambridge-based Greek forensic archaeologist has drawn attention to and identified antiquities of potentially illicit origin in museums, collections, galleries auction houses, and private collections that can be traced to the confiscated Giacomo Medici, Robin Symes-Christos Michaelides and Gianfranco Becchina archives.  Tsirogiannis teaches as a lecturer on illicit trafficking with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

Image Credit: ARCA
Screenshot taken 02 May 2018
Dr. Tsirogiannis noted that Lot 4 of the sale, a bronze Greek figure of a horse, lists the object's collecting history as:
Münzen und Medaillen AG, Basel, May 6, 1967, lot 2
Robin Symes, London, very probably acquired at the above auction
Howard and Saretta Barnet, New York, acquired from the above on November 16, 1973 .

For its literature, the auction house mentions the following text: Zimmermann, Les chevaux de bronze dans l'art géométrique grec, Mainz and Geneva, 1989, p. 178.

Through my own explorations I found that Scholar Paul Cartledge, in The Classical Review 41 (1):173-175 (1991), stated:

"Like Archaic Greek bronze hoplite-figurines (CR 38 [1988], 342), Greek Geometric bronze horse-figurines are eminently marketable (and forgeable) artefacts for which private collectors, chiefly in New York, London, Geneva and Basel, are prepared to part with a great deal of hard currency. Their (al)lure is undeniable; I have myself trekked halfway across Europe in pursuit of their elusive charm."

As if to underscore their allure, both past and present, Tsirogiannis sent along three photos of the object on auction which he conclusively matched to photos found in the confiscated Robin Symes archive. 

Three, (3) photos from the Symes -Michaelides Archive
provided by Christos Tsirogiannis

Saretta Barnet died in March of 2017.  Her husband had passed away in 1992. Collecting for more than 4 decades, the couple's collection included everything from pen and brown ink landscapes by Fra Bartolommeo, works by Goya, François Boucher, Lucien Freud, tribal art and a noteworthy collection of antiquities.  

In a December 01, 2017 article in the Financial Times, discussing this upcoming sale, their son, Peter Barnet, indicated that “his late parents bought carefully and took their time to make decisions. For that reason, they preferred not to buy at auction but from dealers.”  Apparently though, not all of those purchases were carefully vetted. 

Screenshot:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bulletin 3269091
In 1999 the family of Howard J. Barnet donated a Black-Figure Kylix, ca. 550-525 B.C.E attributed to the Hunt Painter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That object according to an article by Dr. David Gill, was relinquished by the museum via a transfer in title in a negotiation completed with the Italian Ministry of Culture on February 21, 2006 and returned to Italy in one of the first repatriation agreements between Italy and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

While the Barnet's may have been selective in the quality of the pieces they purchased for their collection, their relationships with dealers known to have dealt in plundered antiquities such as Symes, as well as collecting transactions with private collectors such as George Ortiz, who is also known to have purchased tainted objects, leaves one to question how carefully the Barnet's vetted the objects they acquired.

Given that the bronze Greek figure of a horse appears in photographs found in the Symes archive and the fact that at least one other object donated by the Barnet's was tied to illicit trafficking and was repatriated to its country of origin, this statue deserves a closer look.  With further research, the object and its past collecting history might lead to a link in the trafficking chain that has not yet been fully explored or considered. 

Take the provenance listed in this sales event for example.  If the object's listing of a sale at Münzen und Medaillen AG, Basel in May 6, 1967 is not a fabrication, then exploring this sale in Switzerland, determining who the consignor was, might give us another name name in the looting/trafficking/laundering chain which could help us determine the country of origin and be worthwhile for law enforcement in Switzerland and New York to explore. 

At the very least, this upcoming auction notice seems to indicate that the auction house did not contact Greek or Italian source country authorities before accepting the object on consignment.  This despite the object's passage through the hands of a British antiquities dealer long-known to have been a key player in an international criminal network that traded in looted antiquities. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

April 11, 2018

Auction Alert - Christie's Auction House - an Etruscan 'Pontic' black-figured neck-amphora and a Roman bronze boar

ARCA has been informed by Christos Tsirogiannis that he had identified two potentially tainted antiquities, scheduled to be auctioned by Christie's auction house in New York on 18 April 2018.  The antiquities researcher had notified law enforcement authorities in late March.

On April 11th, 2018 one of these objects is now listed as withdrawn from the auction.

Lot 26, an Etruscan 'Pontic' black-figured neck-amphora attributed to the Paris Painter, Circa 530 BCE. was listed in the auction documentation, before its withdrawal with an estimated sale price of $30,000-50,000 USD.


The provenance published with this object is: 
"with Galerie Günter Puhze, Freiburg.
Acquired by the current owner from the above, 1993."

The second item, Lot 48, is a Roman Bronze Boar, Circa 1st-2nd Century CE., is currently still listed with an estimate sale price of $10,000-15,000 USD.


The provenance published with this object is: 
"with Mathias Komor, New York, 1974. Christos G. Bastis (1904-1999), New York. The Christos G. Bastis Collection; Sotheby’s, New York, 9 December 1999, lot 159."

Photo from the Gianfranco Becchina archive
Exhibited: 
"The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Antiquities from the Collection of Christos G. Bastis, 20 November 1987-10 January 1988."

Tsirogiannis matched the black-figured neck-amphora with two Polaroid images found pasted onto a 22 June 1993 document located within the confiscated archive of Sicilian antiquity dealer Gianfranco Becchina. The white piece of paper describes the scene depicted on the object, while the two photos pasted to the document show the same antiquity prior to its restoration.  In this image, the vase is still broken into many fragments and is seen with soil and salt encrustations.   The dealers handwritten notes on the page include numeric notations and refer to an individual named "Sandro."

Becchina's archive, an accumulation of business records, seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through Becchina's network of illicit suppliers.

As those who are familiar with Peter Watson's and Cecilia Todeschini's book, The Medici Conspiracy may recall, numerous handwritten notes and lists of antiquities, invoices, and etc., found in the Becchina archive refer to Sandro Cimicchi, an artifact restorer based in Basel, Switzerland.

This is interesting in that one of the supply chain elements in Becchina's enterprise frequently foresaw a first phase of restoration on the plundered artwork, then the subsequent creation of false attestations on the antiquity's origin, made possible also through the artificial attribution of ownership to associated companies.

Cimicchi's name also appears on a comprehensive hand-written organisational chart written by dealer/trafficker Pasquale Camera which was recovered by the Italian authorities in September 1995 during a Carabinieri raid.  This ‘organigram’ has been useful to Italian investigators and cultural researchers in piecing together members of this well known trafficking TOC group.  Starting from the bottom and working your way up, this document references everyone from tombaroli, to intermediaries, to restorers, to mid-level Italian dealers (Gianfranco Becchina and Giacomo Medici), and lastly, to wealthy international dealers Robert E. Hecht and Robin Symes.

Cimicchi name has consistently been connected with illicit antiquities dealers and had been noted to have been Gianfranco Becchina's usual restorer. 

Becchina was convicted in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade yet, this antiquity's passage, through or between Becchina and Cimicchi, has not been listed in the provenance details which were published by the Christie's auction house for its upcoming sale.

Tsirogiannis informed me that the second object, the Roman bronze boar, is depicted in two separate professional images in the business archive records of Robin Symes and Christos Michaelides,  two other high-profile art dealers we have written about in detail. 


The Becchina and Symes-Michaelides archives were presented publicly by the Italian judicial and police authorities during the trials of Giacomo Medici, Gianfranco Becchina, Robert Hecht, and dozens of Italian tombaroli in Rome from 2000-2011. Like the Becchina archive, this Greek file features a stash of images seized during a raid on the Greek island of Schinousa, that once formed the stock of Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides.

Unfortunately, neither Symes nor Michaelides appear in the provenance documentation published by Christie's for the upcoming sale on the Roman bronze boar.

With regularity, objects such as these, connected to tainted antiquities dealers, known to have profited from the trafficking of illicit antiquities, appear on the licit market.  Since 2006 Tsirogiannis, a Cambridge-based Greek forensic archaeologist, affiliated researcher and summer lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has, with some regularity, identified antiquities of suspect origin in museums, collections, galleries and auction houses, liking passages in their collection histories to Giacomo Medici, Fritz Bürki, Gianfranco Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides. 

As part of a rigorous due diligence process, auction houses are encouraged to check with the Italian or Greek authorities to ensure that the antiquities going up for auction are clean, so as not to pass tainted objects on to new owners.  Yet dealers in the art market sometimes forgo this due diligence step, as talking with the  law enforcement authorities, means they would likely be required to provide the name of the consignor, should the archive control, come up with a matching incriminating photo.  

As this poses problems of confidentiality for dealers, this step, is too frequently omitted, leaving the only way for matches to be made being when pieces like this  ancient vase, or bronze boar, or marble statue, or Roman glass bottle, eventually comes up for sale during a public auction. Given that TEFAF's newly released report states that there are more than 28,000 auction houses trading world-wide, the task of monitoring them all becomes gargantuan. 

In UNESCO's recent “Engaging the European Art Market in the Fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property”  I suggested to personnel of the art market on hand for the meeting that the legal conundrum of client confidentiality could be circumvented by auction houses and dealers implementing a policy whereby the consignor themselves contacts the Italian and Greek authorities for a check of the the Medici, Bürki, Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides archives before the auction house agrees to list these topologies of antiquities up for auction when the provenance the client has is short on clarity. This would eliminate the auction house's liability for disclosing a confidential client. 

While it might slow down the proposed sales cycle, or be an uncomfortable proactive step for good faith purchases who may have unfortunately purchased a suspect antiquity in good faith in the past, it would be the market's ethical step towards not furthering the laundering by selective omission and it would begin to help collectors understand that their purchases and eventual sales now need to be ethical ones given the onus for ethical behavior being placed on them. 

ARCA hopes that by continuing to publicize the frequency illicit antiquities penetrate the legitimate art market, with provenance irregularities such as these seen in these two identifications, will encourage auction houses or collectors themselves to adhere to more accurate and stringent reporting requirements when listing their object's collection histories.  It is only in this way that new buyers do not continue to launder objects with their future purchases, further prolonging the damages caused by the the illicit antiquities trade.

January 25, 2018

January 24, 2018: New seizure at the residence of New York Collector Michael Steinhardt

A little more than two weeks ago, following a second set of seizures at the residence and office of Michael Steinhardt in New York City, ARCA wrote a blog post outlining other antiquities from the billionaire's private collection that have raised concerns with illicit trafficking researchers.  

One of those objects was this marble Female Idol of the Ozieri Culture from Sardinia. 

Image Credit: 
Manhattan district attorney's office
This idol was seized on January 24, 2018 during the execution of a new search warrant carried out by law enforcement authorities working with the Manhattan District Attorney and HSI.  The artifact was removed from Steinhardt's New York City residence.


Image Credit:  ARCA Screen Capture 
Tsirogiannis had matched the antiquity online via Christie's web version of its sale catalog to a photo contained in the confiscated archives of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici.  Having made the ID, Tsirogiannis emailed his concerns to US Federal law enforcement and Italian law enforcement authorities working towards eventual repatriation should Italy file a claim.  Additionally he notified ARCA, in hopes of drawing further attention to potentially trafficked pieces that often resurface on the licit market but which omit passages through the hands of known dealers involved in the sale of illicit objects.

The sales catalog for the Christies auction is stored online here, although the photo of the idol has subsequently been removed from the object's accompanying Lot description.  Of note is the addition of a brief entry into the "Cataloguing & details" section of the listing, which states only that the object was withdrawn from the sale.

The artifact above matches perfectly with the image below which Tsirogiannis located in the dealer's archive.   In the art dealer's records the statuette appeared atop a turquoise background and broken in multiple pieces, prior to the object's subsequent restoration.

Image of the Sardinian idol
from the Medici
archive 
Before arriving in the collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt in 1997, the Ozieri Culture idol, also known as the Turriga Mother Goddess figure, passed through Harmon Fine Arts and the Merrin Gallery, both of New York.  Once part of the collection of Leonard Norman Stern, the object had been displayed, but not photographed, in a 1990 "Masterpieces of Cycladic Art from Private Collections, Museums and the Merrin Gallery" event where both Steinhardt and Stern were present. 

On November 27, 2014 when the contested object was pulled from the Christie's auction, it apparently was sent back to Steinhardt, where it was later re-identified as still being part of Steinhardt's collection when officers searched his New York City home on January 5, 2018 pursuant to an earlier search warrant.

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 31, 2017

Updates on Turkey’s lawsuit over the multimillion-dollar, 5,000-year-old antiquity known as the Guennol Stargazer.


On August 28, 2017 attorneys for Michael Steinhardt and Christie's filed a lengthy, contentious Motion to Dismiss in the US District Court (SD/NY) related to CIV. ACT. NO. 17-cv-3086 (AJN), Turkey’s lawsuit over the multimillion-dollar, 5,000-year-old antiquity known as the Guennol Stargazer

Screenshot from “The Exceptional Sale,” April 2017
Image Credit: Christie’s New York
The "motion to dismiss" in this case seeks a court order to dismiss the plaintiff's claim on the statutory grounds that such a claim was untimely brought.

Under New York law, barring the expiration of the statute of limitations or application of the laches doctrine, one cannot obtain title from a thief unless the present-day possessor's title can be traced to someone with whom the original owner voluntarily entrusted the art.  As a clear title is not possible in the case of the Guennol Stargazer, it will be up to Steinhardt and Christie's attorney to make a case on the laches defense, where it is clear that the plaintiff, in this case Turkey, unreasonably delayed in initiating an action and a defendant(s) are unfairly prejudiced by the delay.

The purpose of the doctrine of laches is to safeguard the interests of good faith purchasers, in this case of lost/stolen art, by weighing in the balance of competing interest, the owner's diligence in pursuing their claim.   

While delay in pursuing a claim for the Stargazer is generally considered in the context of laches under New York law, it has long been the law of this state that a property owner, having discovered the location of its lost property, cannot unreasonably delay making demand upon the person in possession of that property.

Attorneys for the defendants believe that the repatriation lawsuit must fail as there is evidence that Turkey knew about the Stargazer’s location for longer than three years before it sued, providing the court with a graphic charting that shows when the object first became publicized, implying Turkey's claim, twenty years after its first public announcement, is unreasonable.

The auction home points out that given that the idol’s arrival in the US, it has been referenced on numerous occasions  in museum catalogues and educational publications. 

April 29, 2017

Auction Alert: Christie's New York and the Guennol Stargazer

Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism,  Nabi Avcı 
Jussi Pylkkänen, global president of the auction house Christie's has indicated that at the behest of a request by the Turkish authorities and following the interim judgement of the United States District Court, his firm will apply precautionary measures regarding the sale of the 9-inch, 5,000-year-old female sculptor the "Guennol Stargazer."  Turkey's Culture Minister Nabi Avcı told the press that the auction house will abide by the Court's recommendation for a temporary 60-day hold on the antiquity while an investigation into the object’s provenance is conducted. During that time period, the purchaser’s hammer price + buyer's premium bid of $14,471,500 USD is confirmed but not collected. 

As spoken about in Dr. Sam Hardy's blog, the Guennol Stargazer is a rare 3rd millennium BCE idol, likely from the Akhisar district of Manisa province in Anatolia.  The object first kicked up a fuss when Özgen Acar wrote of his concerns about the object's origins in Hurriyet Daily News.


An investigative journalist, Acar has crusaded for the return of Turkey's cultural patrimony for decades.  He is probably most famous for his dogged quest for the repatriation of the Metropolitan Museum's Karun Treasure, alternatively known as the Lydian Hoard, a name given to 363 Lydian artifacts that once belonged to a courtier of King Croesus of Lydia dating back to the 7th century B.C.E., originating from the Uşak Province in western Turkey.  In the case of the Guennol Stargazer, Acar openly questions the licit or illicit origin of the idol and its legitimacy in the New York auction house's April sale, in light of stringent Turkish antiquity laws.

This 60 day status will allow the Turkish government the opportunity to put forward evidence to convince the consignor to voluntarily forfeit the ancient idol, or if necessary, facilitate a court order of restitution.

Not a great start to Christie's Classic Week

In advance of the auction, Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism,  Nabi Avcı learned of the upcoming sale of the Anatolian Kilia sculpture and contacted the country's cultural representatives through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Turkish embassy in Washington DC and the country's New York consulate. The Turkish authorities wanted to ensure that any potential buyer was completely aware that the idol was likely looted from Turkey. 

In a battle for hearts and minds - whose outcome will affect ancient art connoisseurs worldwide, the ministry also took out a full-page advertisement depicting the idol in the New York Times discouraging the collecting community from purchasing items that irretrievably damage a tangible link to the past.


In that open letter, pictured above, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey stated: 

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey extends its appreciation to the institutions and individuals that have helped to repatriate lost artefacts to the Anatolian origins.  

We thank the Dallas Museum of Art for returning the 194 A.D. “Orpheus Mosaic” to promote an international cultural exchange of art and ideas in 2012.  

We thank the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston which in 2011 returned part of the 1,800-year-old sculpture “Weary Herakles” that was excavated from the Turkish site of Perge. 

And we thank all the private collectors, auction houses and universities for returning 4272 pieces of cultural heritage, including marble pieces, ancient coins, marble inscriptions, amphoras, statues, and a Roma-era bronze horse harness piece.  

The good faith shown in each instance is an example of how countries and cultural communities can work together to preserve the archaeological record. 

The trade and sale of cultural assets are governed by international conventions and domestic legislations, like UNESCO’s global “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export,and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” in 1970, as well as Turkey’s national Asar-1 Atika Regulation of 1884 that prohibits the export of any newly-found or yet-unearthed artwork.  

In the spirit of cultural cooperation, we embrace continued collaboration with the arts community to discover the archaeological context of such historic works, and have good faith that any current or future custodians of Anatolian relics will likewise work with the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism to return such pieces to their ancestral homes. 

The Business of Ancient Art for the Modern Collector

Christie's biannual auctions in London and New York offer some of the world's finest ancient art, but as the stakes for the art market go higher with each sales cycle, one has to question why auction houses prefer the potential customer embarrassment of the "identified as illicit" by an academic, country or journalist approach rather than simply conducting more intensive research into an ancient object's background before accepting a piece for an upcoming auction.

Bidding for bidders and it's about the money.

With plenty of money earmarked for Christie's April 28, 2017 ancient art sale coming from the best name purchasers, it's not a mystery why auction houses and antiquities dealers spend inadequate time worrying about a smudge-free pedigree when sourcing eye-poppingly priced antiquities for collectors. 


When an antiquities collector is willing to fork out $14 million for a purchase, you follow them around like a puppy, catering to their desires because you know in the end the auction house is going to make some decent money out of the sale. To achieve those "record prices" specialists spend significantly more time getting to know their collectors, listening to what they are interested in buying and what they already own, than they do researching where an ancient object came from and whose clean or dirty hands it passed through before arriving to its current consignor.

In the high-stakes art world with high commissions at stake, auction houses focus on wooing and wowing their customers in advance of potential purchases, not pointing out the holes in their consigned object's collection history. The market's focus is on the next bang of the auctioneer's gavel.  It's not on highlighting the murky backwaters an object may have passed through on its way to the auction block.

An auction house's competitive advantage in the marketplace rests as much on their knowledge of their big ticket buyers and sellers as it does on knowing where to source the objects these collectors want.  When someone is willing to offer $14 million for tiny object, an auction house or antiquities dealer will bend over backwards to get one for them.  

Given all of that, we shouldn’t wonder that the auction houses and antiquities dealers behave the way they do.  The bigger question haunting the ancient art market is how do we change the paradigm of "I don't care where it came from, it's pretty and I want it" to "I want something pretty, but I absolutely do care" and I won't buy anything without an ironclad well-documented provenance.

We do it by changing the minds of the collector. 

Collecting ancient art can be an extension of a personal passion, a status symbol or a piece of cultural currency but it also serves as a defacto calling card for the current-day purchaser's own collecting ethics. Deep-pocketed collectors can and should demand that their source dealer or auction house examine and not hide the provenance of the trophy works they are interested in acquiring.  They should also not discount the unacceptable buying and selling habits of the fading old guard of the art market.

If buyers behave conscientiously, the market will be forced to change its practices to keep up with their connoisseur clientele's ethically motivated demands. If only because it is the auction house’s job to know and to cultivate the sale of objects which their customers crave. That demand is what pushes the selling price past the guarantee.

If the antiquities art market really wants to clean itself up, it may be forced to accept in the not too distant future, that the priciest bombshells from the final “hammer price” tabulations may not simply be the rarest and most compelling, historically significant work of art, but also and equally importantly the one that hasn’t funded a war, or destroyed the archaeological record in a source country.

By:  Lynda Albertson